I got caught up with Bruwer Raats yesterday. He’s the owner and winemaker at Raats Family, located in Stellenbosch, South Africa. He currently produces about 9,000 cases annually, and sends about 4,000 to the U.S., which is by far his best market. [Note: Raats also partners with winemaker Mzokhona Mvemve to produce a Cabernet Franc-based blend under the Mvemve Raats label.]
Raats is happy with his just completed 2009 harvest, noting it’s a year in which both whites and reds performed equally well. Even late-ripening varieties such as Petit Verdot are "fantastic" says Raats, thanks to smaller berries and lighter bunches that allowed for lots of extraction without changing any methods or overdoing it in the winery.
Of course, most winemakers are usually happy following a vintage (you can also read guest blogger Ken Forrester's entries on the 2009 South African harvest). I was more curious to hear how business was going in these tough times, especially for a winemaker who comes from a wine region that is still working its way into the consciousness of American consumers. Making it even more difficult, Raats focuses on two varieties—Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc—that don’t exactly carry the prestige of blue-chip varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
“I’m up 20 percent in the U.S. over last year,” he said.
Now that’s some welcome good news …
Raats started his winery in the 2000 vintage, while he was still working at Delaire. He eventually went on his own in 2002, and started shipping his wares to the U.S. market at that time. Since 2004 he’s made an annual trip here. It typically comes on the heels of his harvest, when you’d think a winemaker could use a little time off. Instead, Raats is spending two weeks working the markets in New York, Boston, Chicago and several stops in California. He’s pouring his wines at retailers, pressing the flesh and working on the relationships he’s built up over the past couple of years.
“There’s continuity now,” he says. “People recognize me from year to year. On my first trip, at a retailer tasting, maybe 25 people showed up. Now there are 100.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Raats produces modestly priced, fresh, pure, minerally wines of high quality (you can check out my recent tasting video here, where I discuss one of his Chenin bottlings). But it would seem that all the pounding of the pavement and personal touch Raats has put into educating consumers about his wines is also having a positive effect on his sales.
“In a downturn, I’ve got 20 percent growth?” he asks a bit incredulously. “So will I keep coming [to the U.S.] every year? Absolutely,” he adds with a smile.
It’s a lesson to those selling wine, especially those $50 or $100 Cabernet-based bottlings that have proliferated in recent years. If you lose touch with the folks who are actually buying and drinking your wine, when things get tough, you won’t realize they’ve gone until it’s too late.